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Alternative Names: Greco-Bactrian, Kushan, Kushano-Bactrian.

Classification. Indo-European, Indo-Iranian, Middle Iranian, Eastern.

Overview. A language native of northern Afghanistan employed by the Kushan dynasty as the official means of communication in their empire during the first three centuries CE. Due to the limitations of the surviving documents, knowledge of Bactrian is imperfect.

Distribution. Bactrian was spoken in the core area of Bactria, corresponding to northern Afghanistan, southern Uzbekistan and southern Tajikistan. Besides, it was used for inscriptions and spoken by officials of the Kushan Empire which spread to all of today's Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, as well as to parts of eastern Central Asia and northern India.

Status. Extinct. Attested from the first to ninth centuries CE.

Main Documents

  1. Dast-e-Navur trilingual inscription, from Afghanistan, mostly undeciphered, belonging to Vima Takto, the second Kushana king.

  1. Rabatak inscription, from north Afghanistan, concerning the foundation of a temple in the reign of Kanishka, the fourth and most famous member of the Kushana dynasty. It lists two earlier kings named Vima, one of which (Vima Takto, Kanishka’s grandfather) was previously unknown.

  1. Surkh Kotal inscription, from north Afghanistan, 25 lines long, engraved in a monolith. It relates the foundation of a temple by Kanishka, its abandonment due to a lack of water and its restoration by Nukunzuk, an official in Huvishka's reign (Kanishka's successor).

  1. Airtam inscription found in a Buddhist monastery near Termez, south Uzbekistan, dating from the reign of Huvishka.

  1. Inscriptions of Delbarjin, north Afghanistan, from the early Kushan period.

  1. Graffiti in cursive Bactrian script found in the Buddhist monastery of Kara-Tepe, in south Uzbekistan.

  1. Coins and seals from king Kanishka and his successors.

  1. One early manuscript fragment found in Lou-Lan and seven later ones from Toyoq, in Central Asia, mostly undeciphered.

  1. A manuscript fragment in Manichean script from Qoco (Turfan), in Central Asia.

  1. 150 documents (letters, legal and economic, two short Buddhist texts) from northwestern Afghanistan written in cursive script on leather, wood or cloth dated from 342 to 781 CE.                                                    

Phonology. Bactrian had, apparently, a vowel system similar to that of Pahlavi, consisting of five short and five long vowels: i, ī, e, ē, a, ā, u, ū, o, ō (except for o and e, vowel length was not distinguished in the script). Besides, there was an initial schwa (ə), represented by alpha, and a final one represented by omicron. All words ended in a vowel, most frequently in omicron which was usually pronounced as a schwa or not at all.

The consonant inventory was quite similar to that of Pahlavi. As in other Iranian languages many voiced stops became fricatives.

Script. Bactrian is the only Iranian language whose writing system was based on the Greek alphabet, a consequence of the conquest of Bactria by Alexander and the subsequent establishment of a Greco-Bactrian kingdom there, before the Kushan empire. The Bactrian script is identical to the Greek script except for one added letter (þ) used to transcribe the š sound (xi and psi were not used as their sounds don’t exist in Bactrian). Inscriptions use capital letters, and other documents cursive writing.


  1. In contrast to the elaborate case and verbal systems of Old Iranian, Middle Iranian morphology was drastically simplified. Bactrian morphology is quite similar to that of Middle Western Iranian languages like Pahlavi and Parthian.

  1. In the earliest Bactrian inscriptions traces remain of only two cases, direct (derived from the nominative), and oblique (derived from the genitive) which in the ensuing documents vanish almost completely, surviving mainly in pronouns. Singular and plural were regularly distinguished but masculine and feminine genders were only distinguished in the definite article and in some adjectives and participles.

  1. Inflection of verbs is barely known, but periphrastic, and ergative constructions (used by transitive verbs) have been attested. The present is based on a stem in -aya-. The preterite 3rd singular is just the past stem while other persons require the addition of the enclitic copula. Besides the indicative, there were imperative, optative and subjunctive moods. As in Sogdian and Khotanese, there were two types of infinitive.

Syntax. It had a number of similarities with Sogdian syntax.

Basic Vocabulary

god: bago

horse: aspo

tongue: ezbago

water: abo

son: pūro

daughter: logda

four: sofaro

hundred: sado

and: udo

when: kaldo

here: malo

then: tado

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -Baktrische Sprachdenkmäler (2 vols). H. Humbach. Harrassowitz (1967).

  2. -'Bactrian Language'. N. Sims-Williams. In Encyclopaedia Iranica, vol 3, 344-349. Routledge (1988).

  3. -New Findings in Ancient Afghanistan: the Bactrian documents discovered from the Northern Hindu-Kush (1997). N. Sims-Williams.

  4. -Bactrian Documents from Northern Afghanistan I: Legal and Economic documents. N. Sims-Williams. Oxford University Press (2000).

  5. -Bactrian Documents from Northern Afghanistan II: Letters and Buddhist texts. N. Sims-Williams. Oxford University Press  (2007).

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